京のキー Cormorant Fishers

Cormorant Fishers

During the height of Summer the spirits of our ancestors return to this world, prompting families to visit their hometowns so that they might pay their respects to the dead. Obon is a festival in remembrance of the dead, when highways are choked with thousands of cars full of people attempting to get back to their place of birth. It is a time for visiting graves, of family coming together, a mass exodus of people travelling from the cities back to the countryside, children holidaying with their grandparents.

August 16th marks the end of the Bon season and is the last day of vacation for most people. Kyoto plays host to Daimonji, a final celebration before the summer draws to a close. Giant bonfires called Okuribi are lit on mountains around the city in the shape of the kanji (Chinese characters) DAI (large), MYO (miraculous), HO (doctrine), a boat (FUNAGATA) and a torii gate. The fires are said to act as beacons, guiding the spirits from our world back to their home in the Nether-world.

Rhod and I cycled through Saga to Arashiyama to watch the final bonfire (torii) ignited. Parking our bikes by the river we squeezed through the thousands of people crowding onto the bridge and got carried down to the food stalls. Edging our way to the river bank we watched floating lanterns being made in the thousands, carried down to the water and set free, carefully corralled a few hundred feet to a jetty, where they were scooped up and the paper given away to tourists for luck.

Taking photos was a nightmare, as everywhere but the food stalls and floodlit shops was pitch black. Wandering around we decided to wait for light-up time sitting by the weir, a little way up from Togetsu Bridge. Pleasure boats drifted up and down the River Oi, setting off fireworks and waiting for Daimonji to begin. Meeting Ogi and his wife, Atsuko, we saw in the distance the burning hillside of Daimonji, a huge fiery character that marks the beginning of the brief celebration.

Thirty minutes later and all eyes turned to the hillside a little beyond Arashiyama. Four pin-pricks of light that had been burning since early in the evening all at once swept down and across the darkness. More and more fires began until the huge image of a torii gate was emblazoned in the black. To oooohhhs and ahhhhhs we scrambled through the mass of people and shoved our way across the bridge to try and get a better view of the mountain. Brilliant idea, but we totally failed.

A little way off from the crowd we walked up the river in peace. The pleasure boats lazily swung up and down the waterway, an eerie mist hanging over the water from the smoke of the bonfires. Everything was silhouetted, dark and still and silent. Then came the biggest surprise for me. Every year I see posters on the train, depicting fisherman who train cormorants to catch fish for them. Yesterday I finally got to see one up close. This type of fishing is little more than a tourist show nowadays, but hundreds of years ago this kind of fishing actually took place. Three men in long, shallow boats circle the river whilst dangling a bucket of burning wood over the side. Cormorants, with wires attached to their necks, are set down in the water and allowed the freedom to fish. The fire attracts fish towards the boats and in seconds the birds have driven themselves below the surface. As soon as they emerge another man grabs and and pulls them into the boat. The wire ensures that the cormorant can't swallow the catch and instead drops it into the boat. It is remarkably harsh for the bird, but amazing to watch. I managed to get some photos crouched on the stone bank, desperately trying to hold my camera still enough to catch the scene. They are not great, but the best I could manage.

One thing is a bit puzzling. How has the tradition of the fishermen wearing straw skirts carried on, despite working with spitting, sparking wood? How many fishermen have gone up in flames in the past?

Daimonji is quite beautiful, but for me, the cormorants win out. I am glad to have escaped the madness of the Kamo river for the tranquil quiet of the Oi River and the fisher-birds.
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Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

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